American culture: Graham crackers and auto insurance

You can memorize vocabulary, but you can’t memorize a culture…

A depressing realization: I can memorize French vocabulary, but I can’t memorize the culture.  Some things just continue to puzzle me: sitting in a theater watching a French movie, why does the whole place erupt in laughter when I have absolutely no idea why?  And why is it that when I laugh during the same movie, the rest of the audience is completely silent?  And the obsession with the Masons–what’s up with that?  

I think that the Freemason thing might be related to the generalized French suspicion of associationssince the Revolution of 1789, but that’s just a guess…


My coronavirus planque (hiding place) of the moment: New Orleans, Louisiana.  I know a bunch of French teachers here, and delight in the opportunity to explain various oddities of American culture to them.  What is a “maraschino cherry,” exactly?  (No clue, actually.) What are comprehensive, liability, and uninsured motorist? (As people try to figure out what to do with their summer off now that they realize that if they go home to France, they risk not being able to cross the American border in the fall, in which case they would lose their jobs.  Consequently, people are buying cars, renting campers, and just generally looking for means of transportation that will allow them to visit the United States without ever having to board an airplane.)  And most puzzling of all: if graham crackers are crackers, why are they sweet??

I don’t know, and in fact I find that fact even more puzzling than the French, since as an American, I am aware that they were meant to be a health food.  From Wikipedia:

The graham cracker was inspired by the preaching of Sylvester Graham who was part of the 19th-century temperance movement. He believed that minimizing pleasure and stimulation of all kinds, coupled with a vegetarian diet anchored by bread made from wheat coarsely ground at home, was how God intended people to live, and that following this natural law would keep people healthy. His preaching was taken up widely in the midst of the 1829–51 cholera pandemic.[3]:15–27[4]:29–35 [5][6] His followers were called Grahamites and formed one of the first vegetarian movements in America; graham flour, graham crackers, and graham bread were created for them.

Temperance is avoidance of alcohol for reasons of morality.  The temperance movement aimed to discourage alcohol use.  It eventually resulted in Prohibition, the national illegalization of alcohol production, sale, and use.  Prohibition was a goldmine for the criminal underworld, and it was eventually repealed.


Oddly, this was intended to be an essay about French vocabulary for metal fasteners–nuts, bolts, and the like.  So it goes sometimes…


English notes

comprehensive: A kind of auto insurance that reimburses you if something happens to your car, other than an accident.

liability: Insurance policy for a car that reimburses the other guy if you cause an accident.

uninsured motorist: Insurance policy for a car that reimburses you if the other guy causes an accident, but doesn’t have liability insurance of his own.

So:

Auto insurance for crashes: liability covers the other guy if you are at fault; uninsured motorist covers you if the other guy is at fault and doesn’t have a liability policy.

Auto insurance for everything other than crashes: comprehensive.

Just to make sure that we’ve got this straight, here’s a little quiz–scroll down past the graham cracker pictures for the answers.

  1. Your car is parked in front of your house.  A tree falls on it.  What kind of policy would get you reimbursed for the damage?
  2. You are driving to work when some asshole slams into your car and takes off–a hit-and-run in English, délit de fuite in French.  What kind of policy would get you covered for the damage that he caused?  (In theory, an asshole is intrinsically male.  The female equivalent, according to the philosopher Aaron James (author of the classic Assholes: A Theory), is a bitch.)
  3. You are on your way home from visiting an alligator farm when you rear-end some guy on his way home from a tour of the bayou.  What kind of policy would compensate him for the damages?
  4. You have liability insurance, but no other kind of auto insurance policy.  A hailstorm ruins your paint job.  Will your insurance company pay to have it redone?
  5. Which kind of auto insurance policy would you expect to be mandatory in every part of the United States, and why?
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Graham cracker crumbs form the base of a number of delicious desserts. Picture source: https://www.heb.com/product-detail/keebler-graham-cracker-crumbs/204669
graham crackers
Commercially-made graham crackers, FAR more common than the homemade kind. Picture source: https://www.costco.com/honey-maid-graham-crackers-14.4-oz%2C-4-count.product.100369056.html

Answers to the auto insurance quiz

  1. Your car is parked in front of your house.  A tree falls on it.  What kind of policy would get you reimbursed for the damage? Comprehensive–if you have it. Otherwise, you’re screwed.
  2. You are driving to work when some asshole slams into your car and takes off–a hit-and-run in English, délit de fuite in French.  What kind of policy would get you covered for the damage that he caused?  (In theory, an asshole is intrinsically male.  The female equivalent, according to the philosopher xxxx, is a bitch.His liability policy, assuming that he has one and that the police can find him.  If not: your uninsured motorist policy, if you have one.  If you don’t: you’re fucked.
  3. You are on your way home from visiting an alligator farm when you rear-end some guy on his way home from a tour of the bayou.  What kind of policy would compensate him for the damages? Your liability policy if you have one (and you’d damn well better–it’s mandatory.  Otherwise, his uninsured motorist policy, if he has one.  Otherwise, he’s fucked.
  4. You have liability insurance, but no other kind of auto insurance policy.  A hailstorm ruins your paint job.  Will your insurance company pay to have it redone?  No.  If you had comprehensive, it would cover this–otherwise, tough shit.
  5. Which kind of auto insurance policy would you expect to be mandatory in every part of the United States, and why? Liability, since at minimum you need to be able to compensate the other guy for any damage that you cause.

 

Oral comprehension of English: ranges of years

The kid just hung his head. “This was my third try.”

In 2016, I took a test of French language proficiency. It was for the C1 level of the European standardized language skill rating system, known as the CEFR, or Common European Frame of Reference.  In the typical CEFR exam, you have four separate tests for oral and written production and comprehension.  At the C1 level, the requirements for oral comprehension include things like being able to understand speakers who interrupt each other, and announcements over a crappy train station sound system with lots of background noise.

It’s not easy–certainly the hardest part of the four tests.  After I walked out it, a very unhappy-looking kid in the hall asked me if I thought I had passed.  I asked him the same question.  He just hung his head.  This was my third try, he said.


So….since you’re stuck in COVID-19 confinement anyway, why not work on your English oral comprehension?  This video contains a fat old bald guy reading ranges of years, waiting a few seconds for you to write them down, and then telling you what happened during that period of time.  If you’re planning to go to school in an anglophone country, or to work in any kind of technical capacity, the ability to understand ranges of numbers is essential–I hope that you find this video helpful for practicing those skills! You can find more videos on various and sundry aspects of spoken American English on the Zipf’s Law YouTube channel.

Coronavirus binge-watching: Into The Night

“Lapider”: to stone. Such a beautiful word for such a horrible way to kill someone.

As I write this, most of the US has been under confinement for going on two months. For me, it has been two months, ’cause I spent the week before everything went to shit isolating myself voluntarily–I was coughing like crazy, with what turned out to be whooping cough–and I didn’t want to get stoned to death on the Washington DC Metro.  (Lapider–to stone. Such a beautiful word for such a horrible way to kill someone.)

So, the other night I’m watching a new apocalyptic series on Netflix.  The crisis is not realistic, the most unrealistic of the characters is especially irritating, and…well, in general, it’s just an irritating show.  I put down my iPad in frustration, step out on the porch, and light a cigarette.

I light my cigarette, and I’m thinking about what’s going on in the real apocalypse: people dying. People’s jobs disappearing. And all of it far worse than it has to be, because the Liar-In-Chief is characterologically incapable of seeing that the way for him to handle this is not by incessantly lying through his fucking teeth, but by telling our country the truth. By putting federal dollars into testing, not by claiming that there are plenty of tests available for everyone, which is manifestly false–all while having himself and his suppôts tested daily, while front-line medical personnel go without.  Asshole.

I light my cigarette, and I’m thinking all of that, and I realize: escaping for a little while into the space of an unrealistic apocalypse would feel far better than thinking about the real one…and back into the night I go.


The unrealistic apocalyptic Netflix show to which I am now completely addicted is called Into The Night (Dans la nuit in French).  It’s in French, and in a particularly interesting French, because many of the characters are not natively francophone, so they have accents, and that fucks me up totally.  For my fellow amerloques, here’s a bit of the vocabulary that I had to look up in the first episode.

The passport control guy in the Brussels airport recognizes one of the main characters, sees that she’s flying to Moscow, and asks her:

  • Tu vas mixer ? 
    • “You spinning there?” (from the English-language subtitles, ’cause I couldn’t find mixer in the dictionary)
    • “You DJing there?” (from the British English soundtrack, ’cause see above, plus there’s no American English soundtrack)
  • Non, c’est juste une apparition.
    • No, it’s just an appearance.  (subtitles)
    • No, just publicity. (British English soundtrack, and by the way, non-Americans never believe me when I say that Americans don’t necessarily understand spoken British English, but it’s nonetheless true)

One of the characters is buying a last-minute plane ticket, and the clerk says to him:

  • Le prix s’élève à 4.235 euros.
    • The price comes to 4,235 euros.
  • Je prends.
    • I’ll take it.

s’élever à: to come to, to amount to. You use these expressions in English primarily when a price has multiple components.  So, if you buy a hamburger, and a hamburger costs $5.00, then the kid at the cash register might say: ok, that’s $5.00.  But, if you add cheese at $1.00, a slice of tomato at $0.50, and pickles at $0.50 (I have no clue what the actual prices are–who orders a hamburger at a place like that?? Not that I haven’t worked in a couple of ’em), then the clerk might say: ok, that comes to $7.00.  When do you use s’élever à in French? I have no idea–Phil d’Ange?

Here one of the characters–a Flemish dude with heavily accented French, so I don’t know how correct this is–sees people boarding the plane before him, and says the following.  What I didn’t know the meaning of was ça, alors !

  • Oh, on peut monter avant les premières classes ? Ça, alors !
    • I didn’t think anyone got to board before first class. (subtitles)
    • Looks like some people are better than first class.  You know?  Huh? Huh? (British English soundtrack)

WordReference gives a number of meanings for it, all of which are expressions of surprise.  Of them, the best translation for this case is probably well, I never! …which would typically have some connotations of a disagreeable surprise. Like, someone does something totally rude to you, or tells you a story about something shitty that someone did to them–Trump’s replacement for his original Attorney General just had the charges dropped against a guy who had already pled guilty twice of lying to the FBI about his interactions with the Russians during the transition. –Well, I never!  Of course, that conversation implies that an American exists who can still be shocked by Trump’s betrayals of America…

…and I put out my cigarette, and back to Episode 5 I go.


Conflict of interest statement: I don’t have any conflicts of interest.  I pay for my monthly Netflix subscription just like everybody else, and the tobacco industry sure as hell isn’t giving me any freebies.

Coronavirus entertainment: Tattooing yourself

American English oral comprehension practice, with coronavirus and some tattoos

A bit of English listening practice: here’s an NPR story about a tattoo artist who is keeping himself entertained by tattooing…himself.  I’ve put together a list of some vocabulary items that you might not have come across before.  If you would like other aspects of the language of the story explained, please say so in the Comments section!

ink: The basic meaning of this word as a noun is encre. When the announcer says (at 12 seconds into the story) that the tattoo artist has given himself one new piece of ink every day in quarantine, he means that the man is giving himself one tattoo every day. Nowadays you can also use this word as a verb, to ink, which means to give a tattoo, or to tattoo. Examples below.

to sport [something]: to wear proudly. Merriam-Webster defines it this way: “to display or wear usually ostentatiously.” At 15 seconds into the story, the reporter says Woodhead, who already sported hundreds of tattoos…

CNN: A popular cable news channel. It is roughly the BFM-TV of the United States–relatively short stories versus a lot of in-depth programming; the same stories played over and over; and, it should be said, some very good commentators, particularly Fareed Zakaria, a pretty unattractive man who I would nonetheless love to have a cup of coffee with due to his great insights into the world and the news of the day.

 

 

Fiche le camp, Jack: English idiomatic expressions with “to hit”

One of the most delightful books I have ever read in French is named Les Mots et la chose–“Words and The Thing.”  “The thing” is a euphemism for “sex.”  The conceit of the book is that an actress who earns her keep by dubbing pornographic movies has grown weary of the limited vocabulary that her job calls for, so she writes to a retired linguist who specialized in words for la chose to ask for suggestions.  He comes through in spades, with separate chapters for all of the relevant body parts, and of course for l’acte itself.  My favorite: Le détroit des Dardanelles,  the Strait of the Dardanelles, for that part of your body where poo comes out and where, between friends, other things might occasionally go in.


I keep seeing all of these articles in the paper about how to fight coronavirus-quarantine-related boredom.  I don’t get it–I haven’t been this busy in ages.  Telecommuting; reminding my father to eat, to take his medicine, and to let me do his laundry; making masked food runs to the grocery store; eating half of a chocolate babka in a single day (damn it, Zipf); sitting on the front porch smoking cigarettes and petting the dog–I barely have time to learn my 10 words per day of French vocabulary.

Of course, none of that has stopped me from spending inordinate amounts of time looking up French-language covers of classic American songs.  For example, Fiche le camp, Jack is a cover of Hit the Road, Jack, a favorite from before my childhood (and hence, a long fucking time ago).  A cover differs from a dubbed version in that where dubbing involves an original video version whose audio track is replaced, a cover is a de novo production.  So, if there is a video involved, too, then it will be shot anew for the new version.

So, the above-mentioned French actress is dubbing movies so that they have a French-language soundtrack, while the video below shows a version of Hit the Road, Jack, nicely covered by Richard Anthony and some great back-up singers. I hope that it brings a smile to your quarantine day.  Scroll down for the English notes if you are so inclined–today we will talk about some idioms involving the verb to hit, as well as discuss American Evangelical beliefs about what’s going to happen to us sinners.


English notes: idioms involving the verb to hit

In the following examples, note that hit is an irregular verb: its present tense, past tense, and past participle are all hit.

to hit the books: to study.

I can’t go to the party tonight–I gotta hit the books.

Gotta is colloquial language for to have to.

to hit the road: to leave.

This has been a great party, but it’s time for me to hit the road–I gotta go study for my stupid linguistics exam.

to hit bottom: to reach a/the really terrible part of your life. It is often used in conjunction with alcoholics and drug addicts–the belief is that before you can get dry (alcoholics)/clean (drug addicts), you have to “hit bottom.”

God had left her alone with the sinners, so she would sin.  But, she hit bottom after going on a drunken binge with two men she met at a Catholic-sponsored conference on Poverty in the World of Change.  She woke up naked in a hotel bathtub.

The Forsaken, Book Two of The Apocalypse Trilogy.  This is an amusing series of American Protestant fundamentalist fiction about The Rapture, an event in which non-sinners will be whisked up to Heaven, while the rest of us are left on Earth.  (I think that we get damned to eternal Hell at some point.)  The extract is fascinating to me, in that in three short sentences it evokes so many of the tropes of American Protestant fundamentalism: anti-Catholicism, resistance to social services for the poor, and of course loathing of sex.

to hit the sack: to go to bed.

I’m gonna hit the sack–I’ll study for that stupid linguistics test tomorrow.

to hit the hay: to go to bed.

Well, Jack finally hit bottom. He went to the party, but he hit the road early to go home and hit the books.  But, instead, he hit the hay and didn’t study at all.  So, he flunked the test, which dropped his final grade in the course, which dropped his overall GPA, so he lost his badminton scholarship.  He went to his professor and asked him to raise his grade, but his professor said “Surely my course isn’t the only one in which you earned a lower grade than you needed?  Why not go to one of your other professors, and ask them to raise your grade?”  I guess you gotta hit bottom before you get sufficiently motivated as to get your shit together.

I have changed some details to protect the guilty.  But, yeah–I was the professor.

 

 

 

 

Prévert and Les mystères de Paris: Best. Vocabulary. Word. Ever.

Normalcy through vocabulary. And poetry.

The fact that covid-19 has 50% of the world’s population under lockdown orders does not change the fact that in the US, it is National Poetry Month.  The French are getting cats to play tic-tac-toe (le morpion in French, which also means [genital] crab, and I cannot stop giggling like a schoolboy about that), Americans are watching Netflix, and the President of the United States is showing himself more and more to be le roi des cons–and Art goes on.


Jacques Prévert’s poem Pater noster has opening lines as good as any in the world of free verse (translations by me, sorry):

Notre Père qui êtes aux cieux
Restez-y

Our Father who art in heaven
Stay there

Et nous nous resterons sur la terre
Qui est quelquefois si jolie

And we’ll stay here on Earth
Which is sometimes so pretty

Avec ses mystères de New York
Et puis ses mystères de Paris

With its mysteries of New York
And then its mysteries of Paris


So, yeah: the cool neighborhood near me is now empty except for the homeless people living under tarps in the sheltered doorways of now-abandoned shops, Macron is urging the French to support health-care workers, and Trump is urging Americans to support airlines; and I am trying to restore some sense of normalcy to my life by learning my usual 10 words of French vocabulary per day.

So, I’m on a French-language furniture web site the other day trying to find a picture of some obscure item of furniture or another that I ran across while reading Colette’s Chéri, when I came across this: the mystères de Paris.  Literally, that means “the mysteries of Paris”–but it means so, so much more…and thus we have the Best. Vocabulary. Word. Ever.


It turns out that there is such a thing as a mystères de Paris–and it is a commode.  Not a commode in the French sense of the word–what’s called in English a dresser–but a commode in the English sense of the word–a bedside chair with a receptacle for pooping.  A bedside toilet, if you will.  It’s not just any kind of commode, though:

  1. It’s a disguised commode.
  2. It is usually made to look like a stack of books.

From the Meubliz.com web site (translations by me, sorry):

Ce siège d’aisance prend la forme d’une pile de livres simulés. La partie supérieure s’ouvre comme un abattant pour laisser apparaître la cuvette. Ce petit meuble repose sur des pieds bas tournés en balustre ou découpés.

Généralement, ce siège de commodité assez original était décoré de belles et luxueuses couleurs.

This commode takes the form of a pile of fake books. The upper part opens as a lid to access the bowl.  This small piece of furniture sits on feet that have been [not sure what those carpentry terms mean].

Typically, this rather unusual commode was decorated with pretty, luxurious colors.

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Mystères de Paris bedside toilet. Source: Meubliz.com

If you’ve followed this site, you know that Prévert’s poetry is great for understanding what people mean when they talk about “the impossibility of translation.” This is a great example–I just can’t even imagine a way to render mystères de Paris into English, and forget about maintaining that rhyme:

….sur la terre
Qui est quelquefois si jolie

…on Earth
Which is sometimes so pretty

Avec ses mystères de New York
Et puis ses mystères de Paris

With its mysteries of New York
And then its mysteries of Paris

(Yes, jolie and Paris rhyme in French.)

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A Dutch-made mystères de Paris bedside toilet from 1850. Source: Meubliz.com

(Wait, I forgot–more tic-tac-toe-playing cats…)

 

So…let’s all stay in, stay healthy, thank the people working in the grocery stores, thank the people working in the gas stations, thank the doctors, thank the nurses, thank the respiratory therapists–and ignore les maîtres de ce monde, les maîtres avec leurs prêtres, leurs traîtres et leurs reîtres–a line from later in the poem that is more than evocative of the coronavirus-era Trump.  And let’s take care of each other.

See this post for the full poem, as well as for a discussion of the line that I just mentioned.  You can exercise your oral comprehension skills with an English-language video, complete with subtitles, on how to make your own face mask here.

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Mystères de Paris bedside toilet. Source: Meubliz.com